It’s that time of year again, when even the most casual baseball fan begins imagining the scent of fresh-cut grass and the warmth of the summer sunshine on their faces under the brim of their favorite team’s ball cap. While the northern air still nips at much of the country, down in Florida and Arizona, professional ballplayers coalesce at their team’s springtime homes to literally and figuratively warm up for the long season ahead. For the Detroit Tigers, that home is Lakeland, Fla., also known as “Tiger Town.” It is here in this sleepy central Florida community that the fans get their first taste of what to expect from their beloved franchise for the long summer schedule ahead.
Once upon a time, spring training was accompanied by the phrase, “Hope springs eternal,” reflecting the attitude that any sports fan embraces when a new season arrives — that the return of their favorite franchise brings new hope that their team might parade the championship trophy through the streets of their patron city. Sadly, that has not been the case for Tigers fans the past couple years and does not project to any time in the near future.
So, what is there to be excited about?
The answer is baseball. “Bad baseball is better than no baseball at all,” is a long-repeated adage that speaks a great deal of truth. But let’s not start off on a pessimistic note. There is a lot to look forward to this spring with the beloved boys in the Olde English D, if you pay close attention. After all, a bad day of baseball is better than a good day at the office. Or so I’m told.
Tuesday was the official day that Tigers pitchers and catchers reported to camp, so I went out to Publix-Marchant Stadium to get an early-bird view of the start of the 2019 baseball season. I sought to quench that thirst that every one of my fellow fans has: to see the scenes and smells the smells and hears the sounds that signal the arrival of our summertime companion.
The day began with a familiar trip down the nation’s most dangerous highway — the run down Interstate 4 is one that I have endured for nearly all my life, but still never fails to instill the fear of death — that clocked in at just under an hour, giving me enough time to build my anticipation. I embarked with angry clouds looming overhead, threatening to put a damper on the day. Soon enough, the sun cracked through, bringing the warmth of sunshine and some degree of assurance that the day would go well.
As I continued my drive, I passed a small orange grove that lingers behind in an otherwise moribund industry. A bit further down the road lies Walt Disney World, a behemoth that is the exact opposite of what the citrus trees represent, with its sprawling entertainment empire increasing its reach every day. Both, however, are signature trademarks of the Sunshine State that generations of baseball fans have passed on the way to their teams’ springtime abodes, and will again in 2019 just as I did.
Not only was the scenery genuinely pure Florida, so was the weather — en route I encountered the most Floridian of all atmospheric events: sunshowers. While the clouds and precipitation trolled me my entire ride to Lakeland, I refused to allow them to dull my optimism, as I was intent on seeing baseball in some form or fashion today and break my fast from America’s pastime.
I arrived at my destination greeted by the sun willing its way through the clouds, and along with those rays a perfect 72 degrees, a stark contrast to what much of the Tigers fanbase has experienced with the polar vortex blanketing them with snow up in the Mitten. The familiar sights along Lakeland Hills Drive brought back many pleasant memories of visits prior. Those recollections rarely included the outcome of the games on the scoreboard, but rather, they evoked reminiscences of fresh air, the cracks of wooden bats, the pops of the balls striking leather gloves, the smells of cut grass and clay, and the nascent warmth of sunshine. The parking lot field was mostly empty, though there were a few older fans meandering about; however, the area behind the guarded gate where the players were parked was full of action. It was clear that baseball fever was arising from its winter slumber.
The entrance to the venue was mostly unchanged from my previous visit a few years back, with the introduction of a Joker Marchant statue in front of the gift shop — a very classy touch if you ask me — the primary exception. As I strolled through the concourse, the stadium staff buzzed with activity; a construction crew was making repairs, team employees were erecting tents, grounds keepers were tending to the field, kitchen crews were scurrying to and fro, and front-office types were yapping away on their phones as they wildly paced around. An elderly man sat up in the stands alone just above the concourse level, admiring the scenery. I commented to him, “It’s a good day, isn’t it?” and he responded with, “Today is beautiful.” Indeed, it was.
I walked around the third base side of the stadium back to the outfield berm, where they have done a great deal of construction since my last visit, reducing the green area to about a quarter of what I had recalled. I inquisitively explored the venue sitting atop the grassy knoll and quickly realized why the edifice was erected, making a mental note reserve a seat up there for both spring training and minor league games. Standing atop the field looking down on its majesty, for a moment I felt at ease, like all my worries had disappeared, and all that mattered was that I was in the presence of Tigers baseball. It didn’t take long until I also began to feel the humidity rise. I noticed the sun melting through the clouds, urging me to get moving before the sweats kicked in, so I complied.
From there, I moved to the back fields, drawn by the distant but familiar pops of the glove that are a signature trademark of my beloved sport. On display was visual confirmation of the $40 million investment the franchise made into the facility recently, adding modernized training facilities and updating their eroded infrastructure. A vast array of baseball diamonds lay neatly arranged abutting one another at 90 degree angles, each assigned their own plaque commemorating a Tigers great from the past, along with several new buildings erected for the purpose of enhancing player resources.
On the field closest to the clubhouse, several players with names most won’t recognize ran sprints and threw warm-up tosses — the source of my auditory allure. As they left the field, I passed them and commented that it was a beautiful day for baseball. While they all agreed, the last guy to pass me noted how hot it was. At about half-past eleven in the morning at the time, I responded, “Just wait until later,” which was reciprocated with a hearty chuckle.
Walking back from the training area, I began to notice the crescendo of chirping birds as the early spring air steadily warmed. Meanwhile, the grounds crew and staff scurried in search of refuge from the midday Florida sun. I, a fifth generation Floridian and no stranger to the Central Florida climate, began to feel the treachery of the impending midday heat index that only the swamps of the mid-state can inflict, so I decided it was time to get under cover myself. Fortunately, the grandstand of Publix-Marchant offered plenty of shade for me to relax and recover, with an opportunity to dig a bit deeper into the venue.
As I slowly made my way through the stadium, I circled back to take some time to admire the visitor’s dugout. The cool shade within invited me for a brief stay. I sat on that bench with the overhang shielding me from the increasingly menacing sun, and I looked out over the field imagining all of the players — from hopeful non-roster invites to Hall of Fame level players — who gazed out upon the same setting as I was, bringing about a true moment of zen that I indulged in for a few minutes. I capped my dugout experience off by walking over to the bullpen phone only to notice, much to my delight, that early 80s technology was still very well intact, adding to the sentimental undertone that had felt throughout the day; I realized then that my nostalgia had come full circle.
Walking out of the gates, I felt a newfound anticipation for the season to come. Yes, the overall performance of the big league club projects to be very bleak, but there are plenty of storylines to be excited about as baseball returns from its slumber. Watching the greenhorns grow in the warm Florida sun will be one of the most compelling spring training narratives, along with many other items of interest. There is bound to be a surprise or three thrown in for good measure, as the coming season promises to be full of ups and downs — probably many more of the latter than the former than most of us can stomach. There will be narratives that irritate us all, injuries that break our backs, players who catch our hearts, and plenty of drama to fill in between. But even in these chaotic times, hope can still spring eternal for us fans if we look in the right places. And for the next month and change, Lakeland will be the setting for hopeful Tigers fans.
More importantly than anything mentioned in this article, baseball is back. For that alone, we should all be grateful.